Lahore: Guardian Court Lahore has become a source of agony for both the parents and children because of the unpleasant environment and complicated visitation procedures.
The Guardian Courts were established under the Guardian and Wards (G&W) Act 1890.
Until November 2015, nearly 532 children have visited the Guardian Courts to meet their parents. During the first nine months of 2015, approximately 4125 new cases have been registered in the Guardian Courts.
A separated mother, Shumaila Butt comes to the Guardian Court Lahore to meet her children. She told News Lens Pakistan, “My three sons live with my ex-husband who is a police officer. Legally, I am allowed to meet my boys only thrice a month whereas my husband can keep them for rest of the time.”
It is almost five months since she has been trying to get permission from the Guardian Courts to allow her to take the children for a few days to her home.
She says,“Even after the court had given the visitation schedule, my husband did not let me meet my kids for the first six months.”
“It took me six months to persuade the courts to summon my ex-husband through a show-cause notice. I had to run, from pillar to post to get my right,” she added.
Lack of privacy, because of insufficient and a crowded visiting room, leaves many parents unable to share their feelings with their children, laments Shumaila.
A long narrow strip of hardly 100 meters is what is called playing ground of the Guardian Courts. Parents who want to play with their children can hardly do so because of the paucity of space.
According to Shumaila, the non-custodial parents have to go through a complicated procedure, to get a live-in permission for their kids. Property documents, copy of the CNIC, the testimony of two witnesses, a letter from the lawyer, are required along with the attested application form.
Shumaila was also upset about strikes, which she said had become a permanent feature of the legal fraternity.
The judicial process in Pakistan is notorious for supporting the influential calls. It grinds even slower when it comes to the weaker lot, which does not necessarily means being financially weak.
A female politician, who had been an advisor to the former chief minister Punjab, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, seeking anonymity for political and personal reasons, told News Lens Pakistan that she has been trying for the last three years to get a small permission from the court to allow her to bring her four daughters to home for a sleep-over on weekends.
She curses everyone at the Guardian Courts for supporting her ex-husband who is rich and influential.
“Given the environment at the Guardian Court, I cannot ask my grown up daughters to visit me there. I used to get long dates for hearing of my case. Things have improved since I have started bribing the reader (clerk in the court),” said the politician.
She added that that if a person of her calibre and status could run into difficulties, one can imagine the hurdles an ordinary person had to get over to get justice from the Guardian Court.
The general environment at the Guardian Courts is simply not adequate to accommodate the ever rising cases and meetings that take place between the children and their parents.
Syed Sabahuddin, a manager at a local hotel, comes to the Guardian Courts to meet his two daughters, who are now living with his ex-wife.
He is not happy with the general environment and the sitting arrangement provided at the court.
“At a given day around 60 to 70 families visit the court to meet their children while the number of seats available could only accommodate 120 people the most.
“The condition of the bathrooms is pathetic. There is just one big room while the rest of the meetings between the parents and the children take place in the playing ground or the area adjacent to it,” he said.
“On every meeting, a child has to mark attendance in a register lying with the guardian judge. Children do not feel comfortable with this practice,” says Sabahuddin
Experts believe the issues besetting the Guardian Courts are linked to the now archaic Guardian and Ward Act 1890.
Many petitions have been filed at the higher judiciary against the G&W Act. Legal experts and parents believe that the 125 years old law has outlived its utility.
For some lawyers, though, the problem is not that critical.
“I certainly do not believe that the G&W Act has become archaic. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has interpreted the law on various occasions, and many amendments have since been made to make the law responsive to the emerging realities,” says Khawaja Mohammad Ali, a lawyer in Lahore.
Ghazala Khan, a women rights activist and a lawyer looks at the situation otherwise.
According to her, delays in the settlement of child custody cases are usually witnessed when a woman is a complainant. The man/father does not appear before the court unless a final notice, carrying the ex-parte warning, is served.
“There should be a system of getting the Union Councils involved as soon as the notice is served to any of the spouses. The UC should be mandated to produce the defendants. I have fought many cases where the father fails to produce the child or vice versa on the scheduled dates,” she added.
She said,”The courts, instead of penalizing the parents for failing to produce the child, issue warnings to them to mend their ways. Ideally, a bailiff should be sent to produce the child as soon as the second hearing lapses.”
The Lahore High Court through a judgment in August 2015 had allowed the non-custodial parents to meet their children outside the Guardian Court.
The court had recommended that four rooms in the children library complex Lahore could be allotted as parent ward meeting area.
News Lens Pakistan contacted the Children Library Complex (CLC), to verify if any such arrangement has been made.
The administration officer CLC, Shahid Hussain said that the former Chief Justice, Lahore High Court, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, had identified two places in the CLC, one was the Punjab Archive Building within the CLC, and the other was the Special Children’s study area.
“The then Secretary Archive, Auria Maqbool Jan, who happened to have an office within the CLC, had refused to grant both the places.” “The CLC administration had also feared that parents-wards meetings, which at times turn rough, could have had adverse effects on other children visiting the library,” said Hussain.
To find out if any policy has been made to kick off the guardian courts reform process, News Lens talked to the Law Department Punjab.
Any policy about legal matters arrives at the law department for further development or legislative procedures.
Secretary Law and Parliamentary Affairs Punjab Dr Syed Abul Hassan Najmi told News Lens Pakistan that his office had not received any policy concerning reforms in the Guardian Court.
However, he agreed that reforms are urgently required in both the Family and Guardian Court laws. “I have suggested to the government that the Guardian Courts should be moved into the Family Courts’ jurisdiction.”
The name of the Family Courts should also be changed to Reconciliation Centers, which would give families in divorce litigation, a conducive environment to talk things out, he said.
“The government, it seems, has still not included reforming the G&W Act 1890, in its priority list,” said Najmi.